By Jaimz Dillman
Just a quick drive down I4 (well, depending on traffic) we hit Tampa's premier Halloween event, now in its 22nd year. Howl-O-Scream is the big brother event at Busch Gardens to the newbie Howl happening in Orlando. A much bigger amusement and animal park than Sea World, we were excited to see how the two compared.
There are 5 haunted house offerings to enjoy with 3 being returning themes, one revamped, and one brand new. Seven themed scare zones fill the space but, just because you leave a marked area, doesn't mean something sneaky isn't waiting for you along the darkened walking paths. Three shows are listed on the website but we missed the Cirque Xtreme show as it had only one performance and, unfortunately, hurricane damage downed the 50/50 Gameshow widely used in all the event's marketing. Park employees said they expect for it to be back by next weekend and characters from the show were out and available for photos with guests.
Make sure you have the BG app before your trip to find out any information. They aren't giving out paper maps anymore and the QR code provided on some signs only gives you a digital map. It took some digging online and asking someone where to get showtimes, food offerings, etc. for us to find answers. Again, most employees gave us the same blank stare "I don't know" answer we got in Orlando. It's pretty frustrating when you're trying to plan out your evening and aren't too familiar with the lay of the land.
Lines started forming early and the crowds started to grow but any wait seemed pretty manageable. Our trek started right at the opening with the Stranglewood Estates house. A gorgeous Victorian House whose residents have descended into madness. The stand out for this one was the sets and the length of the maze. A few really fun SPX and boo-holes added to the scare factor and actually startled a not-easily-scared Mike.
The revamped house, "The Residence" missed an opportunity in being a vampire house with that advertising tag. The overlay is "Home For the Holidays" and this maze is anything but jolly. There didn't seem to be a particular story other than madness, murder, and mayhem mixed in with every Christmas concept they could think of including a Santa at the exit calling out all the naughty boys and girls. This was also the second time we saw the gross bathroom trope- complete with burping toilet- in both houses.
The Forgotten is the actual vamp house but really it should be listed as the S&M dungeon. I mean, it was sexy adult time for sure and I wondered what the dad coming in behind us would say to the two young boys with him. Red lighting added to the steamy surroundings and the head Vamp on the throne was definite female empowerment energy. No scares really, but plenty to feast your eyes on.
We were told returning house Witch of the Woods was the longest experience but didn't really impress us all too much. Half the time was the walk to the beginning and we may have hit a cast change as several rooms and holes seemed empty. Werewolves and animatronics aplenty filled Death Water Bayou: Blood Moon, our final maze of the night. It was really dark so we really couldn't enjoy some of the fun automatic jump scares and the use of bungee actors that appeared here- as in several other locations- but seemed most effective in this setting.
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There were even fewer event-themed food offerings here than in Orlando and again, hard to find. The only thing we saw was hot Cheeto-dusted popcorn and pretzels. Bars were plentiful but had the same options at each stop including the usual blood bag cocktails and seasonal Pumpkin ale.
Standouts for the scare zones included the VooDoo area with great costumes and actors really enjoying themselves, The Shortcut walkthrough was really cool with such detailed sets, I was happy we got to see it while it was still daylight out. And Mike's favorite - much to my horror- was the clown area by the bumper cars. Yes, you can drive bumper cars with clowns, And that's a big NOPE from me!
Our final stop was for the big live show, Fiends. A massive stage is set up with rows and rows of metal seating but it's all on one level so sight lines are pretty tough. You can upgrade to closer seating for $20 but after the show was over, we were glad we didn't splurge.
Now, I've seen my fair share of Halloween raunchiness. Something about the spooky season makes scriptwriters throw out all rules of taste and decorum. Various incarnations of scantily clad dancers, loud rock music, and lampooning pop culture have been done across the state. And it can be done well. It was not, however, in Tampa.
A loose story of Dr, Frankenstein receiving his star on the Hollywood walk of fame is presented through classic monsters delivering tasteless jokes, lip-syncing dance numbers, and an Igor sidekick who just got worse as the show went on. I will say, the actors and dancers gave their all with what they had to work with but sometimes you can't put enough lipstick on a pig to make it pretty. When the final pyro was set off Mike and I just sat for a few minutes to try and digest what we just watched. Other guests around us seemed to have the same thoughts hearing comments that matched our opinions as everyone filed out.
It's a shame that was the finale of the evening as we really enjoyed everything up until then. Merch matched most of what SW Howl had on display with a few additions noting Busch Gardens, Tampa. Oh, and the smokehouse brisket nachos! They pretty much made the night and we'll make the trip again next year just to have them again!